In 1850, the Kentuckian aristocrat, Cassius Marcellus Clay, gave a 10-acre land to John Gregg Fee, an abolitionist, so that Fee could build Berea College, America’s first integrated institution of higher learning in the South.
This was groundbreaking but it was not out of character for Clay who had mastered how to spite virulent race segregationists.
Clay was a publisher who incited unrest with his anti-slavery rhetoric. He manumitted slaves that he had inherited from his father – something that weirdly put him in danger with fellow Southerners.
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But of all he would be remembered for, Berea College is obviously Clay’s more lasting impact as an abolitionist who opposed the dehumanization of Africans.
Berea was Fee’s vision. A Southern Presbyterian minister, Fee was known to have instrumentalized biblical teachings against slavery.
Anti-slavery sentiments cost Fee personally and his mission as a preacher. The clergy in Kentucky had not evolved on the issue of race and slavery so that meant, Fee found it difficult to find a permanent position.
Fee then took to writing, mostly about slavery and abolition. Eventually, he found sympathizers among the American Missionary Association in about 1948.
In 1953, Fee founded the town of Berea, with the town’s name appearing to have been picked from the Bible (Acts 17:11-21).
Two years later, Fee found in Clay the man with the means to concretize his hopes of building a model racially integrated community. So in 1955, Berea College was established as a one-classroom unit.
The backlash against a school in 19th-century Kentucky where black and white children are supposed to learn together was instant.
As the school itself recounts, “it has faced fierce opposition over the years, first from armed, pro-slavery militias to segregation imposed by the state legislature.”
Berea College is in many ways, a testament to moral resolution. Its doors have been opened for more than 160 years to those willing to commit themselves to a humane community.
The school’s motto has stayed “God has made of one blood all peoples of the earth”.
In 1892, in order to offer more opportunities for students, mostly poor African-Americans, Berea College became tuition-free. The tradition remains to date.
These days, liberal arts work college with one in three students identified as a racial minority. It offers four-year degree programs across 32 majors.
Due to its generous education policy, some 40% of Berea’s students are from southern Appalachia, one of the poorest places in the country.
It may not be an HBCU but in the spirit of reaching out to the most vulnerable and underprivileged, Berea’s student composition might as well be a victory for those looking for a fairer world.